January 17, 2013

Complete mtDNA sequences and the history of Slavs

PLoS ONE 8(1): e54360. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054360

The History of Slavs Inferred from Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequences

Marta Mielnik-Sikorska et al.

To shed more light on the processes leading to crystallization of a Slavic identity, we investigated variability of complete mitochondrial genomes belonging to haplogroups H5 and H6 (63 mtDNA genomes) from the populations of Eastern and Western Slavs, including new samples of Poles, Ukrainians and Czechs presented here. Molecular dating implies formation of H5 approximately 11.5–16 thousand years ago (kya) in the areas of southern Europe. Within ancient haplogroup H6, dated at around 15–28 kya, there is a subhaplogroup H6c, which probably survived the last glaciation in Europe and has undergone expansion only 3–4 kya, together with the ancestors of some European groups, including the Slavs, because H6c has been detected in Czechs, Poles and Slovaks. Detailed analysis of complete mtDNAs allowed us to identify a number of lineages that seem specific for Central and Eastern Europe (H5a1f, H5a2, H5a1r, H5a1s, H5b4, H5e1a, H5u1, some subbranches of H5a1a and H6a1a9). Some of them could possibly be traced back to at least ~4 kya, which indicates that some of the ancestors of today's Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Russians) inhabited areas of Central and Eastern Europe much earlier than it was estimated on the basis of archaeological and historical data. We also sequenced entire mitochondrial genomes of several non-European lineages (A, C, D, G, L) found in contemporary populations of Poland and Ukraine. The analysis of these haplogroups confirms the presence of Siberian (C5c1, A8a1) and Ashkenazi-specific (L2a1l2a) mtDNA lineages in Slavic populations. Moreover, we were able to pinpoint some lineages which could possibly reflect the relatively recent contacts of Slavs with nomadic Altaic peoples (C4a1a, G2a, D5a2a1a1).



  1. "Some of them could possibly be traced back to at least ~4 kya, which indicates that some of the ancestors of today's Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Russians) inhabited areas of Central and Eastern Europe much earlier than it was estimated on the basis of archaeological and historical data."

    Or, it might just indicate that there is something wrong with the methodology or assumptions that go into those dates. Maybe the mutation rate is wrong, or the haplogroup identification is insufficiently fine grained, or the differentiation of subtypes happened elsewhere and was followed by non-homogeneous migrating populations (e.g. separate villages that had already become genetically distinct in the Balkans migrating en masse to various new locations).

    In this part of Europe, the archaeological and historical data are likely to be fairly comprehensive and accurate. Of course, mtDNA tends to be deeper in time depth than Y-DNA and you can't do a meaningful genetic history of an entire people without mtDNA, Y-DNA and autosomal data; mtDNA alone isn't enough.

  2. ^ They're not basing their conclusions on the full mtDNA sequences alone, but also on the latest forensic/physical anthropological and paleodemographic data from Poland. Please note that they also mentioned R1a-M458, which really does not look like it expanded into Poland from the east.

    So there's clearly something wrong with the archeological and historical data, or with their interpretation.

    I expect we'll soon be seeing another study from this team about Slavic Y-DNA, especially R1a-M458 and R1a-Z280. There might also be plenty of ancient DNA results coming out of Poland soon thanks to a new aDNA lab in Poznan. That should be the clincher for everyone concerned.

    The only thing I'm disappointed about with this study is the lack of references to ancient DNA results from Mesolithic, Neolithic and Scythian Eastern Europe, in regards to those Siberian and Altaian mtDNA lineages mentioned.

  3. Yeah - not sure I see much valuable, here.

  4. The authors forgot the wisdom of Barbujani. But that's a pretty common mistake.

  5. Just becuase the lineages go back 4000 years ago, it doesn;t mean that those lineages were physically located in Poland/ Slovakia , does it ? !

    The fact is that arhcaeology and palaeodemographic evidence is alomost undeniably proves landscape discontinuity and population decline in Poland in several periods - after Luazits culture and after Przeworsk culture collapse

    Of course, this does not mean that the SLavs came from Ukraine. But the fact remains that SLavs as an ethic groups only formed from the 6th century onwards, to speak of Slavs in Poland, or anywhere, prior to 6th century is anachronistic and incorrect, even thought undoubtedly pre-Slavic langauges were spoken somewhere in eastern Europe since 2 kya

  6. Dr Rob,

    I agree with you and have made similar statements in the past.

    The paper unfortunatly heavily confuses genetic background, culture, and language.

    Who still argues that the area of northern and western Poland was Slavic speaking from the beginning? We know that the Baltic states weren't Baltic or Uralic speaking until quite recently. We also know that the area west of the Vistula was inhabited by East Germanic tribes during historic times, and based on loan words into Uralic, for a long time before then.

    Just because there is continuity does not mean there was no Slavic expansion. Slavic expansion has been clearly demonstrated for northern and western Poland, currently German and Czech territories, Belarus, Russia, the Balkans, and more. The Slavic apparatus of church, military, and government in already populated areas wasn't interested in farming - they wanted to make an easy living based on their power structure. I have previously estimated based on y-DNA that in the north and west of Poland, at most 5-15% of the population was replaced.

    And just because both genetics and physical antropology find continuity, that does not mean language continuity. Where is the language continuity in the Baltics, in Hungary, in Romania, in the Czech region?

    The paper also conveniently has very few to none German, Baltic, or Austrian data.


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